V4N7: September 1998
Volume 4 Number 7
Table of Contents
Toni Morrison hit the literary world in 1971 with the publication of The Bluest Eye. From then on, she has dealt with a particular African American experience in seven novels. But what is most striking about her novels and her expression of the African American experience is the relative absence of whites.
This statement may seem flat, but Altamont Now is a play that will get you to think.
This exciting capitalist idea was obviously conceived by some higher-up: a corporate superexec or maybe a sleazy club hound. Fascinating as it was, I had to call the Viper Room and inquire about it. They of course did not return my phone call.
Listening to this first effort from Caroline Lyon and crew is one of the most enjoyable in-home musical experiences that I have had lately.
My reaction against coffehouse walls is beyond most people I know.
The project could be thought of as a minimalist and impressionist portrait of Amada Cardenas, known for loving people unconditionally, in the remote area of South Texas.
Tunji's members should not be lumped with other overnight sensations; they have been paying their dues for some time.
Tunji's members should not be lumped with other overnight sensations; they have been paying their dues for some time.
I'm surprised, it seems that most people don't know where to look for Austin's soul. But it's all around.
Those of you who followed the recent Poetry Slam Nationals held here in our noble little city may still be, as I am, a bit groggy from ingesting so much spoken word.
Ah, Fat! by Manuel Gonzales
I spent a week in August in the sun, on the beaches of Cozumel, frolicking in the white sand and snorkeling through the blue water (so blue, it couldn't be real, could only be the product of Disney's imagination, but it was real, all very real), drinking more than my fill of rum-and-cokes and living in a dream. Fitting, then, that I should have read Toni Morrison's Paradise while in my own personal paradise. Of course, the only similarities end in that both were beautiful, but even there they differ -- one made of dark beauties and white beaches, redorangepurple sunsets seen from the decks of small, rocking boats, yellow and black striped fish so close you could almost touch them, the taste and smell of salt on your lips and in your nose morning, noon, and night; the other made of an almost perfect prose, rich and well-thought out characters, and a beautiful and sad (and somewhat troubling) story that leaves you thinking and thinking and thinking.
Toni Morrison hit the literary world in 1971 with the publication of The Bluest Eye. From then on, she has dealt with a particular African American experience, some would argue the African American experience, in seven novels, most of which have dealt with a female African American experience (Song of Solomon was her first -- and pretty much only -- novel whose main character was not a woman) ranging from child molestation, coming home, leaving home, slavery, and love -- the love of a mother and daughter, the love of lovers, and most recently, with Paradise, the love of God. But what is most striking about her novels and her expression of the African American experience is the relative absence of whites. For the most part, they stick to the shadows of her work, and with the exception of Beloved, slip in and out of scenes with very little fanfare or affect. Guitar, in Song of Solomon, hated whites and worked towards their extinction which led to strife between him and Milkman. Tar Baby dealt with a young black woman living with a Caucasian family in the West Indies, but even then the family was little explored or exploited. Beloved dealt with slavery, but more the effect slavery had on its victims, direct and indirect, than on the inflictors themselves.
This same can be said for Paradise. Sure, the opening line, "They shoot the white woman first," might suggest Paradise is the exception, but more than any of her other novels to date, Paradise deals with the relations of blacks with blacks. More importantly, the relations of pure, eight-rock blacks to blacks of mixed or lighter color. In this novel, the former rule, while the latter should probably leave and never come back, thank you very much. Ruby might or might not be "paradise," but it is where the bulk of action (and inaction) takes place. A small, all black town in the plains of Oklahoma, Ruby was founded by 15 families, led by Deacon and Steward Morgan (twins), after the all-black town their fathers and grandfathers built, Haven, slowly crumbled to the ground.
There is an Oven. In the center of town, there is a large Oven, built by the founding fathers of Haven and moved, brick by brick, across the plains of Oklahoma until they reached what would become Ruby. Before they built houses or stores or schools, the men rebuilt that Oven and replaced its plaque, engraved with the words "... the Furrow of His Brow." The first word or words were lost through time, forgotten or never even seen by those who left Haven to found Ruby. And how they remember the original plaque -- Beware the Furrow of His Brow -- and how the next generation wants to interpret the plaque -- Be the Furrow of His Brow -- and the heated arguments that follow serve as the first sign that Ruby is no paradise and hasn't been so for quite some time.
The first 10 or 15 pages of Paradise might seem daunting at first, confusing and much like the beginning of Beloved, where Morrison throws the reader into a situation unexplained and unreasonable. Simply, in the beginning section of Paradise, nine men enter a secluded mansion, called the Convent by most and located just outside Ruby city limits, and they proceed to kill the women who live there. Why is explained (somewhat) over the next 300-odd pages. Whether or not you are fulfilled or will be fulfilled by Morrison's narrative as explanation, I cannot honestly say. I can't say whether or not I was fulfilled. By the prose and the characters and the story, the idea of the story and how well she plays the story out, I was fulfilled. Though why nine men felt that killing four women living alone and wild and without supervision, living in relative peace with Ruby; felt that killing these women who had on countless times helped their women -- their wives and daughters -- and had even helped them, the men, and if nothing else had sold them good food and fiery hot peppers, and had (in at least one case) loved, truly loved, at least one of the men who would later break into the Convent, shotgun in one hand and cross in the other; why these nine men felt they had to kill these four women, that only by killing these women (unarmed and unsuspecting women) would they bring back the Ruby of their dreams, the Haven of their past, I don't quite understand. The novel is sectioned by name. Names of women from Ruby (including the woman named Ruby), and of women from the Convent. And according to Morrison, the novel is about love. Godly love, to be exact.
Beloved explored the love between a mother and daughter; Jazz explored the love between man and woman; and Paradise, the end of a trilogy of love, explores divine love or some close semblance. And there is debate of God and between churches and whether or not we should beware the furrow of His brow or simply be the furrow of His brow. But more the novel is about a people steeped in the dangers of tradition, men and women alike, from Ruby and the Convent, stubborn and prideful and willing to lay blame on anything they deem out of the ordinary. But then, maybe the story is less about God and more about religion. Whatever this novel is about, though, (and I readily admit, it will take more than one or even two rounds before I come closer to that truth) it is well written, beautifully imagined and with less posturing and better characterization than Jazz, as powerful as Beloved and as well-crafted as Beloved and Song of Solomon. However many times I need to read and reread this novel to understand better what Morrison had in mind (though that may not even be what the novel is about since nobody's perfect and books have a way of running away from their authors), each read will be more than pleasurable.
Altamont Now by Sandra Beckmeier
This statement may seem flat, but Altamont Now is a play that will get you to think. A lot of work has been put into this production, and just about everyone at our editorial meeting was aflame or buzzing -- and understandably so. Since April 1994, Salvage Vanguard has produced more than 20 productions that break new ground by combining different artistic disciplines in a theatrical context.
Playwright David Bucci is a keen observer, and a gifted writer. Also a founder of Salvage Vanguard Theater, this is the fourth play he's written in the company's growing production roster, and Altamont Now is certain to tell of a character amused by life. This time, the story is of "Richard Havoc, an MTV idol who creates a militia group and invites the youth of America to join in his crusade against everything old."
The stylistic use of language is not only funny, but reveals a side of Bucci's world in rock music -- an extension of intimacy within the society of rock and roll culture which tends to promote the separations between audience and performer to the nth degree.
Bucci and fellow performer Chad Nichols of local rock band Enduro come together in bringing live music to theater. Nichols offered: "Being a musician in Austin means being situated within a hive of creativity. There exists an incredible sense of community among the young people here who are involved with local music. I want musicians to realize that the type of work they are doing conceptually has a history within the arts as a whole. The play discusses these issues and ultimately exposes the revolutionary, anti-authoritarian stance as empty rhethoric. It exposes this creative separatism for the hindrance it is."
The play was created as an "exploitation film for the stage," Bucci says. "Alternative music is one of the strongest bonds that link together my generation and is one of the only live performances capable of engaging them en masse. One of my main goals in writing Altamont Now was to expose a non-traditional theater audience (young people ages 16-30) to the power of live performance."
Directing the piece is Jason Neulander, who is beside himself with excitement about this production. He's also shooting the video which has been weaved into the performance, along with musical compositions by Nichols and Bucci. According to Marketing Director and Director Katie Pearl, it's a "rock and roll montage."
The group is devoted to their artists and is building a national network as well as interdiscplinary programs including an ongoing second stage season. It's geared to give local spoken word and visual artists the chance to create quick and dirty performances with Salvage Vanguard's support. In their 1996-97 season, they worked with more than 100 young artists and were awarded the Fund for Social Entrpreneurs from Youth Service America -- a three-year grant awarded annually to six groups from around the country who promote active service by young people in their communities.
SVT received grants from the Meadows Foundation, the Dell Foundation, the City of Austin and the Texas Commission on the Arts for audience development. You've seen those "I Hate Theater" stickers all over town. They indicate the group's promotion of active spectatorship as opposed to the traditional passive. Salvage Vanguard Theater is doing a good job of hating theater and offering intelligent productions. Neulander and Pearl explained that national theater patrons tend to be a lot older than the audiences Salvage Vanguard are focusing upon. There is something to be said for loyalty.
Altamont Now runs Thursdays through Saturdays, 9pm, from Sept. 4 to 26 at the Warehouse, 2830 Real Street.
In the L.A. Downtown Arts Scene You Pay...to Play? by Allyson Lipkin
The Viper Room, the Troubadour, The Roxy Theatre, House of Blues. All big names, immortalized by movie stars, rock stars, and hip-hop rappers. All I could think about while driving around West L.A. last week was how Lou Reed sings about the "Dirty Boulevard" on the other coast. Here on Hollywood's decrepit street lined with trashed buildings and tourists. How the Pharcyde sings, "Down to House of Blues and I slid in free, tennis shoes, tee-shirt and no I.D." Wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, I was looking around for Heather Locklear, Carmen Electra, Joaquin Phoenix, whomever looked like a star. I found none. Everybody is in the biz and eager as hell to talk about it. That's when you know they're phonies, though, and one should place stock in these interesting characters.
My probing question was, bands have to pay...to play? This exciting capitalist idea was obviously conceived by some higher-up: a corporate superexec or maybe a sleazy club hound. Fascinating as it was, I had to call the Viper Room and inquire about it. They of course did not return my phone call.
But I got some perspective from my friend Rod Sherwood of the Los Angeles-based band Sumac. "Oh, yeah, we don't have to pay to play anymore. We've got a big enough crowd now so we don't have to."
"But that is such a cheesy policy," I said.
"Yeah, but it weeds out a lot of the really bad bands."
I disagree from what I saw one night at The Mint -- The Mark Gable Band. This band was together, but the music was downright atrocious. Big hair, tight pants, and horrendously exaggerated facial expressions really turn me off. The other bands were OK ... the buzz was about Ginger Sol. They were tight and nicely dressed but kind of generic.
The Mint is one of the cool clubs in L.A. that a band needn't pay to play. It also had a recording studio next to the stage. To pay to play means that the club basically rents the space to the band, kind of like if you were to rent out a country club for your own private affair. They sell you the tickets so that your band in turn must sell them out or give them away. (One ad in the LA Weekly, Mindflower. Live at the Viper Room. Free tickets. Call 323-660-1633.) So this band had to rent the space, give tickets away, advertise a quarter-page ad in the weekly, and they still probably suck and no one will show up. I guess you have to start somewhere.
As a working local musician, I see this extra work as a hassle. I personally feel that it is the club's responsibility to advertise all their shows. The club and the band should work together to get people to come out -- the band through word of mouth and flyers, and the club with their ambiance, advertising, and target group of hipsters or cheddar-heads. Whomever. The point is that it is pretty belittling to bands that are starting out. L.A. is obviously more commercial than our sweet alternative underground, and there the idea is to sign on the line and start recording big hits.
I would say the same of Austin, but somehow this town seems more savvy than that. There are ways to cause a stir here even if you're not, let's say, The Damnations. You can make your own video and broadcast it on AMN. You can play live on our local stations, KUT, KOOP and KVRX. You can use this experience to get a gig at SXSW, and automatically you have at least an ounce of respect, all over the country.
The uptown L.A. scene does two things. First, it makes things very competitive, which is not a bad thing, and it makes live performances a special occurrance. Many bands play showcases with three, four or five other bands that start in the early evening, and my experience was that people do show. They actually leave their houses when it's still light outside for some buzzing showcase with a newly signed pop-rocker. This makes bands more serious about their presentation, and they come prepared. With competition like Secret Chiefs of Mr. Bungle, Eagle Eye Cherry (Don Cherry's pop rock son), the Spice Girls, Ice-T, Roy Hargrove or the Propellorheads, all of which were playing the week I was in town (among many others), I can understand the need for a booking agent. The town is massive.
Touring acts do not have to follow this pattern of paying for playing. If you have a press kit and a CD, EP or really good demo, you can send it out to clubs and if you're obnoxiously persistent, they will set you up with a showcase. You will not get paid well, unless you're Fastball or Celine Dion. But Jimmy Burdine of local homies Brown Whornet said they played there four times on there recent West Coast tour, and got paid from $20 to $80 each gig. There was not a guarantee at any of these venues, but at least they didn't get screwed out of anything or get their equipment stolen.
I am not trying to imply that LA is all cheeze. I really loved it there. I'm sure there are some really cool underground scenes taking place in Compton or Silverlake. Some rocking house party with a Phat DJ dance jam. I would rather have been at that party; chilling with Beck, whom I saw at Swingers restaurant...
Inkululeko by Harold McMillan
The female vocal ensemble Inkululeko has just released their debut self-titled CD. And I have to tell you, listening to this first effort from Caroline Lyon and crew is one of the most enjoyable in-home musical experiences that I have had lately. And I listen to it most every day. I admit that I am personally proud of the group and what they and producer David Barrow accomplish with this 16-cut, all a cappella disc.
Clear, soulful vocals, edgy layered harmonies, thick and compelling drummer-less poly-rhythms that weave together songs and stories from South and West Africa, the Caribbean, and the Eastern Bloc of Europe. Solo voices and emotional, moving harmonies that tell musical stories, in languages that most of us don't understand. This is what makes this album -- especially as a first recording -- so musically satisfying, emotionally powerful, and artistically successful.
You don't have to speak the language to feel the message of the music. Although the literal text of these songs represent praise shouts (Bara Suayu), to laments -- Bahleli Bonke -- to vocalesse improv -- Cauldron -- to freedom songs -- Thula Sizwe -- love of life and celebration of the human spirit -- Coro Coro -- celebration of song is the universal message here. I also suspect that a good portion of the ethos behind Inkululeko -- the individual women, the band and the music they choose to write and interpret -- is too an expression of sisterhood, in its most sublime sense.There is something about this group, in their live performances, in the way they promote themselves, in the "culture" of their band, that really sets them apart from Austin's average male rock and roll wannabes and grrrl-group pop star strivers.
It translates to the CD. On this record, you hear and feel sisterhood: a group of women artists who care about the music, the culture, the international human condition and each other. For those of us who follow the music of folks like Sweet Honey in the Rock and Zap Mama, it is hard not to compare Inkululeko to these internationally acclaimed vocal groups. That, in and of itself, is a positive endorsement. But remember, the tradition of female praise shout ensembles goes back hundreds of years. Like Sweet Honey and Zap Mama, Inkululeko is merely drawing on traditional forms of expression from cultures with roots that predate all of us.
Do yourself a favor, go out and buy this disc. You'll love it, it will make you feel good, and you too will be excited about the promise of wider exposure for this group of really exceptional Austinites.
Java, Guilt and Elitism: Curiosity in the First Draft of an Examination of Coffeehouse Aesthetic by Maria Rios
Part of the university experience in Austin is the weekly trek to the local coffeehouse, where lips are quenched with stimulating liquid relief sipped from cracked and generous fountains (if the establishment is popular), and where the price of good conversation is the equal to the change in your pocket for refills. Austin coffeehouses are centers of cultural and intellectual banter, places whose charm is seasoned by heads bent over physics or French assignments, by the caffinated whispers of intimate truths unintentionally bouncing into every ear in the room, or by the professional "artist" who is all too willing to reveal his craft to the svelte and leggy inspiration of his latest sketch or verse scratched on grimy, java stained napkins. Coffeehouses are the sketchpads of verbal aesthetic, the site of transformation of ideas conceived in a womb of dim lights and wooden, sound-graffittied walls. However, as intellectually nurturing as these places are for conversation, music or litera, I find that if my eyes linger for too long on any of the walls, chances are that I'll interrupt any utterance with a viscerally interjected, "Damn, this art sucks!" And for the next 15 minutes my unsuspecting guest will be made hostage to the tyranny of academic training in art history until a slice of cheesecake is bartered to me in exchange for my silence.
My reaction against coffehouse walls is beyond most people I know. Most of them don't know enough about art to accuse me of elitism and further, most of those probably consider the study of visual art and its history a useless act defined by the escapist dreams of those abnegating the reality of the white-collar, universal symbol of material success. Then there are those of my collegues who tastefully brand me uptight, because after all, it is common knowledge that artists create either for love/ethics or to make a buck (as demonstrated during the '80s). What's my argument? they ask as they tastefully refuse my argument for a more challenging one found in rusty texts full of yellowing ideas or the latest in departmental gossip.
Until recently, I did not know. I have dabbled with pen and ink in support of "x" personal cause. Simultaneously, my wobbly intellectual pretentions have bowed humbly before my need to survive, and thoughts of "selling out" in search for an immediately paying occupation come lap dancing forth in my dreams -- and yes, I've been tempted to run lustily into the hands of a bourgeoise utopia where Art Theory books serve as prosthetic legs for "bargain" Ethan Allen coffee tables. These conflicting forces -- the need to create and the need to avoid starvation -- aren't easy to balance. But I'll never attempt to sell my scratchings to the unsuspecting, uninitiated folk at any coffeehouse. Maybe I'm dumb for not doing it, but in the name of academic integrity, I choose not too. So my response to my colleagues is a declaration that I am a simple patron of the arts. In fact, I respect the efforts of every artist (even those I do not agree with) who has the courage to label himself or herself so, regardless of demonstrated ability. I explain that historically manifested expression is the subconscious pea underneath the 20th mattress of American (International) apathy that spurs not just reaction, but feeds and inspires action of the kind that can even -- heaven forbid -- start revolutions.
Art, however, is one of those chameleon nouns whose color changes with time, economics and generational world view; and I realize, too, that just like Dell employees, painters get hungry roughly three times a day. So I can forgive the pseudo-Frankenthaler or Hofmann with the accompanying pricetag that corresponds to Austin rent, yet I cannot support these spiritless works that are philosophical xeroxes of thought that could only be original when they were first created. And with this I will end the foundations of my unfinished argument. How can I reconcile the balance between economics and aesthetics that angers me so and still be a vehement supporter of free expression and the Austin visual artist community in general? I believe that art is about giving the benefit of the doubt and about always looking at the bigger picture -- so to speak -- and about learning when to trust the artist regarding his or her response to the world. In that scheme of things, every artist gains importance. Now, I think this draft, this series of musings and unanswered questions, deserves a bit of field work, and I only hope that my findings both for an argument and an answer to my coffeehouse angst will lead to a happy ending and the phrase, "Well, I guess it's only a matter of taste."
Medicine by Sandra Beckmeier
Amada Cardenas lives at the intersection of many -- often conflicting -- cultures. Amada of the Gardens is a documentary and an unfolding by Susan Maynard (Alternate Currents Gallery), Bill Daniel (Funhouse Cinema and Golden Arm Trio), Aida Franco (community activist) and Alan Pappe (photographer).
The portrait is a testimony to life, although the project is on hold until funding comes through. Stylisically the project could be thought of as a minimalist and impressionist portrait of Amada Cardenas, known for loving people unconditionally, in the remote area of South Texas. Known for its unknown spiritual subculture, the setting is the small village of Mirando City, Texas, population 100, where Cardenas played a major role in the Native American Church of God for most of the century.
This project will include a compilation of images and reminisces about her life as a legal peyote dealer, along with her husband, in the early 1940s through the 1960s. She is the center where diverse peoples come together in peace, harmony and humility, and is considered to be the mother of all members and non-menbers of the peyote church. It is truth that love is everyone's ally, when it is honest and when it is real. Even her name is derived from the Spanish verb amar, which means to love.
"The unique thing about Amada for me is in this culture where women are as driven by ambition as men, she's known because she's not an achiever." Maynard said.
The project will be constructed carefully and composed of cinematography and footage, with selective subtitles in Spanish and English. The producers have written proposals to the Austin Film Society and the City of Austin to cover initial filming and post-production work. There is no guarantee these funds will be met and there is concern the spiritual content will incite censorship of the project.
In the unpredictable present, slaughter is a tool reinvented time and time again to control. Peyote is not legal in all states. Contact Susan Maynard at Alternate Currents for donations to this project at (512) 443-9674.
The Soul of Tunji by Paul Klemperer
You may have noticed that the band Tunji has been getting a lot of attention lately. Their CD was released in June, they've been receiving favorable press and their shows have been packed. You may have also noticed that there seems to be a constant flow of young up-and-coming rockers who use Austin as a stepping stone on their way to national hype status, which has engendered a certain amount of bitterness from the hardworking journeymen musicians who comprise the backbone of Austin's music scene. Be that as it may, Tunji's members should not be lumped with other overnight sensations; they have been paying their dues for some time.
Leader/singer/keyboardist/trumpetman Bruce James Bunn explained to me that he, Joe Amato (guitar), Shiben Bhattachrya (bass) and Brad Gilley (drums) formed the band back in high school in Houston. At that time they called themselves Boogie Knights, a somewhat tongue-in-cheek original disco thing. They did a stint at the University of North Texas in Denton for two years before moving to Austin in 1995 and reconfiguring as Tunji with the addition of Steve Mitchell on percussion.
Part of Tunji's distinctiveness is the heavy influence of jazz and soul music, which derives largely from Bunn's musical background. He started on trumpet in 6th grade band ("to dodge P.E.") and soon was playing cornet in the church where his father was a deacon. He continued to play in the church for the next eight years, under band director Jerry Martin, a major influence on Bunn's musical development. Bunn also attended the Houston High School for the Performing & Visual Arts. During this time Bunn developed a friendship with jazz trumpeter and vibist J.J. Hensley, who gave him a good deal of musical and mental direction. Also during this time the church band's drummer left, so Bunn was recruited to fill the drum chair. Over the years he also worked on piano and guitar.
The break finally came when the church's pastor informed Bunn that "the only music you should play is Christian music." This was a sticking point for Bunn who, although deeply influenced by gospel music, was equally steeped in the more secular sounds of soul and jazz. As he succintly puts it: "Musical ability is a gift from God, but there's all kinds of music."
Pawning his trumpet for travel money, Bunn took off for New Orleans. From there he began a journey of exploration both geographic (traveling the country by Greyhound bus) and philosophic (immersing himself in writers like Jack Kerouac and Amiri Baraka). This period helped him develop his lyrical style, "everyday experiences mixed with spiritual beliefs."
When you listen to Bunn's singing you can't miss the soul and gospel connection. He says that Otis Redding, Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder were early influences, and still are. More recently he's been reimmersing himself in classic jazz players like Cannonball Adderly, Miles Davis and John Coltrane, as well as the diverse sounds of Pharoah Sanders, Afro-Pop artists like Fela Kuti, the New Orleans street beats of Rebirth Brass Band and the new sounds of New York's Groove Collective.
What ties all these sounds together? Bunn feels that Tunji plays "variations on soul music." With this perspective they draw from soul music all around the world. Paying tribute to these various soul traditions, they have developed a distinctive group sound based in their years of collective exploration.
Since their CD release, they have been working toward national management and booking. They plan to tour extensively by next year. In my humble opinion, the guys of Tunji will make a welcome addition to the list of emissaries Austin sends out to the world at large. They've got soul.
Up All Night by Harold McMillan
My cousin Daniel is thinking about moving to Austin. Like me, he's a country boy from beautiful Emory - that - small - town - northeast - of - Dallas, Texas. He's currently attending Texas A&M University at Commerce (it was East Texas State when I was there), and he plans to move here to attend college at Huston-Tillotson. Daniel is one of the best young writers I know. He's smart, writes with passion, fire and anger that shows insight and understanding of what's going on within and around him. He will find much inspiration here, I think. He will think deeply about what he finds here in this hip college town, cultural oasis, live music capital.
So, what should I tell this bright, intellectually and artistically gifted young person about life in Austin? How do I describe the cultural offerings, what do I tell him about the coffeehouse circuit, what cool hang-outs for the young-artist-underground do I recommend for him, where do I direct him for social and intellectual discourse with a diversity of other young poets, writers, artists of all kinds?
Now, I am using my cousin as a real life example so I can discuss some issues I've been thinking about for years. Daniel's move to Austin just provides another chance for me to think out loud about the scene here in the Capital City. My conversations with him -- and what I have to say here -- will in some ways parallel issues brought up in another conversation I had several years ago when one of my artist friends was packing her bags to get the hell out of here.
About 10 yeas I ago I remember hanging out with my friend Marcia as she packed up her tiny student apartment and readied herself for the long trek to the bright lights of New York City. Marcia was early twenty-something at the time, just out of college, a painter and poet with a good portfolio of original work. Marcia was the kind of artist who, it seemed to me, could have found a place in the local scene. She was cosmopolitan, young and energetic, gifted at the art of pseudoscholarly coffeehouse debate, well connected within the campus arterati and the local music/art cool-and-hip underground, and -- quite honestly -- she was really a beautiful young woman. She was the kind of woman, the kind of individual, that this arts scene needs, even more so today.
I wanted Marcia to stay in Austin. I wanted her to be bold and move around in this scene. Since she had graduated from the Art School of the University of Texas at East Avenue, she was in fact needed here. Those of us who had decided to stick it out, sweat blood and continue the struggle needed her in our ranks.
I invited her to roll up her sleeves and dig in, for a while at least. Would she consider putting off her trip to New York for a few months, a year?
That afternoon in her apartment, Marcia was beyond second thoughts about staying in Austin.
Well, let's just cut to the chase and move on from there.
Marcia was well-traveled, just out of college, streetwise and urbane, and quite conscious of her ability to move about as comfortably in New York or Surinam, as in our little Capital City. I knew the answer to the question, but I had to ask her anyway. So I put it out there.
"Marcia, you're a promising young artist, you know your way around the scene here in Austin, we need you here. Why do you have to move out of Austin?"
Marcia's response showed understanding of what I was getting at, but she was fully resolved. She asked me the real questions, addressed the real issues at hand.
"Really, what is there in Austin to keep me here -- where is my community? Where is the multi-ethnic community of young artists/writers/intellectuals/activists who hang out, collaborate, are at the forefront making artistic statements that reflect what Austin is really all about? Just what is there about the scene in Austin to keep a young black artist here, feeling engaged, feeling like there is a vibrant, culturally inclusive and welcoming community in which to work?"
Now, that conversation took place a long time ago. What I just gave you was not an exact quote from our conversation. But the message is definitely the same. Ten years later as I welcome my young cousin to our fair city, the issues are still here, unresolved for many of us. I suspect that if my cousin happened to be a young Latino, many of the same issues would concern me.
If my cousin were a young Anglo poet from Small Town, East Texas coming to Austin hoping to expand his intellectual, cultural, social and -- yes -- ethnic horizons, I actually think I'd be just as concerned. When most young black and Brown folks move into this scene, thinking they are going to find a Rainbow Family of forward-thinking, hip, scene-making student artists, writers and future intellectuals of all kinds and colors hanging out in the coffeehouses, pubs, and on campus, they very quickly realize that our young/college hip-scene continues to be blandly oh-so-alternative -- largely an alternative to a scene that includes persons of color. We figure that one out pretty quickly.
My concern for my small-town-Texas-white boy cousin would be that he will not even notice, regardless of his very PC intentions, that he is not getting the benefit of a diverse cultural or ethnic milieu in his weekly dose of hangout time at the local college java house, hip club, or campus library.
Yes, it begs to be asked...so what, and who cares? Well, I'm not sure I have the answer to that one, or any of the other questions I ask here. But when I go out in Austin questions like this invariably come up for me. I think part of this, at least for me, has something to do with the idealism I had when I came to Austin more than 15 years ago. And I think it also has something to do with the myth of the Austin scene that continues to be kicked around Texas as fact.
There was something about my youth in North East Texas' culture of bigotry, social and political conservatism, and the real experience of Good ol' Boy justice in everyday life that made Austin appear to be the saving grace of life in the Lone Star State (by the way, this just might actually be true). Like oh so many small town Texas youths of the 1990s, in 1979 I too couldn't wait to move to Austin -- laid back, tolerant, progressive, non-segregated, hip and cool Austin.
The myth at that time was that youth culture in Austin was wild and wide open. In Austin, everybody was cool* -- even the cops. In Austin, everybody was liberal*, not necessarily politically left-leaning, but open minded and tolerant. In Austin, the radicals, hippies, cosmic cowboys, gays, and hip black, Brown, and White students, artists, and musicians all hung out and tried to show the rest of Texas what progressive* life in America is really supposed to be about. And being a college student in Austin put you right in the middle of the action. You could actually meet, debate, and collaborate with the next generation of Texas leaders here. That next generation of scholars, artists, politicians, publishers and activists was to be multiethnic, multi gendered, and represent a diversity of ideological points of view. And those folks, folks just like me and you, were the ones who were here because they recognized the potential for America's youth to spearhead some real positive changes* in our culture, our society. For Texas, Austin was the ideal place for this kind of movement.*
With that said, you get a clue of just how idealistic I was. As I present it here, there are threads of truth that underlie the Myth of Austin Past and Present. But, at least as it reads in my previous paragraph, the Myth contains a lot of naive bullshit, too. After all of these years, I've grown jaded and cynical about this whole thing, about the Austin Myth.
My curiosity got to me, though. For the last couple of weeks I've been hanging out in the coffeehouses, having conversations with young folks, asking them about this stuff, asking them if they have the same concerns, asking if they think my observations deserving of thought. From my point of view, and I admit mine is pretty crooked by now, most results of my informal polling do not produce any great spark of optimism.
What I found in my conversations was enlightening. Some of what I heard actually did make me feel that my concerns were valid ones. But too, some of what I heard made me think that I'm just this old guy who thinks too much, too much about shit that just don't matter anymore in Austin. And, some of my conversations gave me some new insights, made me look at this stuff in ways that I had not considered. Everything I've written here is influenced by those conversations.
I spent most of my time in the University area for this little project. It was hard to find black and brown folks (period) interested in talking to me, almost all were Anglo (surprise!).
It wasn't until my last visit to a Guadalupe Street coffeehouse, well after my deadline, that I found some young black folks to talk to. And although I did have an agenda, knew what I wanted to hear, I mostly found that my sentiments were out of touch with those of most of the students I encountered.
By and large, the white kids I talked to simply could not understand the basis of my quest. They hadn't noticed any absence of persons of color. Responses were more like, "well now that you mention it, I don't ever see any black folks around here." Similar comments also came from most of the Latinos and the one Asian student I talked to. "Now that you point it out to me, I guess it really is kinda segregated, but no, I don't think of it as a problem. People like to be with their own kind," seemed to be the prevailing attitude. Truth is, Austin is simply a very white town. The math bears that out.
I lump these responses together to save some space here. There was more said, but this is the meat of the matter. Responses like this were not exactly what I wanted to hear coming from the new generation of Austin cool. But that's what I got, mostly.
There were other responses that took a different view, took me by surprise and now give me a way to exit this ramble that, God knows, could go on for pages.
Surprise number one came from my conversation with two young women in their mid-twenties, writers. They sat together talking, drinking coffee, smoking, writing in blank books that had prose and poetry, and art doodles -- classic coffeehouse "types." Both identified themselves as "white" at first. Then one clarified that she was biracial, Latina/white. The surprise here was that one of these women was the first person I'd talked to who immediately said she thought the scene was defacto segregated. She complained about her friends' attitudes and apathy about racial/cultural issues and said she missed living in a more socially and culturally diverse community of artists. She thought that the "we so cool in Austin" myth obscured significantly problematic issues regarding race relations here. She was the white woman.
A nice piece of insight here came from her mixed race companion. The lack of cultural/ethnic variety in their set of friends and the places they hang out really was not such an issue to her. She acknowledged it, but it wasn't a problem she thought about. What she did think about, and in fact gave Austin's tolerance very high marks on, was gay/lesbian cultural and social issues. For her, Austin's appeal was her ability to move about and be openly "out." That superseded any lack of ethnic variety in the scene. For her, Austin really doesn't have a "race" problem.
After the three of us discussed the arts scene, the coffeehouses, lesbian bars and other cool places to hang out, my two interviewees together offered me what is probably the real finding of my little research project. They gave me a good portion of what I was looking for to describe Austin's alterna-hip youth culture.
According to my two young experts, just like themselves, a lot of young folks from all over Texas end up in Austin because of its hip reputation AND because they really need to get out of their hometowns. Let's face it, it would be fair to say that most college-bound Texas (especially rural Texas) youth live in Bubba Land, Rednecksville, or in the Whitesettlement suburbs.
The role that the move to Austin plays in the lives of these folks is actually a monumentally positive aspect of their development into full fledged adults. You see, if you get all of the "cool" smart country kids and good ol' cowboys, and mix them with the rich frat kids from the 'burbs, and mix them with the hipster city kids and "dopers," you really do get an interesting, diverse mix of types who end up here in Austin. And regardless of the contributing factors that make this group of young Austinites almost exclusively white (such as UT's inability to attract significant numbers of blacks or Browns), life in the scene in Austin IS 100 times "cooler" than the situations these youths come from.
If you've grown up to be one of the only hipster artist-types in your entire high school in Dime Box, Texas, I guess you really might not notice there are no black kids in your classes at UT, nor in your hangout group at Club DeVille or Casino El Camino. Chances are, you're just happy to be in a town where you're not the only one with green hair and pierced tongue. And, according to my young experts, this attitude is really what the Austin "alternative" scene is mostly about. Cluttering this comfortable cool to consider issues of race, access, or cultural diversity is likely something that your average college coffeehouse patron is simply not interested in doing.
By the way, I think this is a very accurate and insightful analysis of the scene. Don't you?
Like I said, it was difficult to actually find black students hanging out late night in the coffeehouses and bars I chose for this experiment. I finally did have some conversation with two young men right before going to press. Since I was almost finished with my piece, before I had conversation with them, I asked them to first read what I had written. I also asked their friends -- one Anglo, one Asian male -- to read my draft and react.
Since I want to end this part of my reportage with the sentiments of my only two black interviewees, let me just sum up what their friends had to say, generally, to my questions.
The Anglo student didn't really see the point of my article or my questions.
In fact, he took the opportunity to try to educate me on all that UT has done to make their campus more "diverse." In his view, there is no problem. UT's campus has "all kinds of students, just look at Jester."
Further, the issue of affirmative action at UT was not an issue he really wanted to talk about. His Asian friend simply refused to discuss any of this.
My two black student experts read my ranting, then looked at me with puzzled expressions, as if to say, "what are you trying to say here." I asked further about what they thought of what I said and the questions I asked. One of the young men, a lifelong Austinite, told me he really didn't think about this stuff so much. For him, and most of his friends, the coffeehouse thing was for whites and just wasn't appealing. He is an English major headed for law school. The whole "arts scene" held no interest for him; he didn't know any black students who considered themselves artists or intellectuals. His friends either stayed at home, went to house parties or, if they went out at all, they went some place that played rap, Serendipity for instance.
I'll end with his friend's critique of my notions. I would consider this young man a student artist. He is studying voice, an opera singer at UT music school. When he read my essay, he found nothing, stated as fact or question or opinion, that moved him to react. He neither agreed nor disagreed, it was simply "interesting."
Now, if what I am doing here fit comfortably into the realm of objective academic research or if I were really a "journalist," this young man's response (or lack of it) would simply be something to note and move on.
But I ain't doing an academic piece for school. I am thinking and talking about, and judging/analyzing, issues in our city that, for very complex reasons, I find disturbing.
I don't want to pick on my young respondents, but our opera singer's final response illustrated the underlying bias of this whole exercise. He illustrated just why I am so concerned, and sometimes worried, about the social and cultural milieu in which our new youthful Austinites -- new college students especially -- find themselves. The only part of my essay that rang true for him was the paragraph where I outline my Myth of Austin Cool, Past and Present. The problem is, he didn't "get" the sarcastic cynicism with which I had presented this line of argument.
Our young opera singer accepted my Myth as an accurate description of life in Austin. He thought I did a good job of describing for him, a young black man, what Austin is all about. My sarcasm when right over his head.
I know this little exercise is not social science research and this sample wouldn't meet academic standards of validity. But, my friends, this is just an example of why I am not so optimistic here.
And what do I want to be optimistic about?
I want to feel that issues of access, diversity, equity, social progress, and -- damn -- just simple variety, are issues that get talked about, are issues that find their way into the thoughts of Austin's youth. I want the new freshman at UT to notice and think about the fact that s/he has only three black kids in a class of 200. I want the graduating jazz major to question why there are no black faculty in the UT jazz studies program. I want the Huston-Tillotson music major to be upset that there is no jazz program at Austin's oldest institution of higher learning. I want the young writers, intellectuals, fine and performing artists of color in (and out of) all of Austin's colleges to spread out and make places for themselves in the local scene. I want Austin to buzz with new ideas that come from folks who are currently not being heard, or seen, or even thought of.
As things stand right now, I also want (and realize that they may not even be here) these kinds of folks to move here. I don't know how to get them to do that, but our local cultural scene is in bad need of some fresh flesh and blood.
Remember my cousin, Daniel?
Well, my advice to him, given the message that should emerge from this piece, is yes, Daniel. Please move to Austin. We need a lot more folks like you.
* See your 1970s subculture dictionary for this usage.
Verities by Sandra Beckmeier
Welcome to our first issue of the new arts season. After surviving my first summer as an arts administrator in the nonprofit world, funding cycles and all, I now understand why headaches are such a seasonal occurrence in nonprofit arts. But seasons do change, and change can be a good thing.
There are now a lot of changes in progress within this particular publication and in the community. Our mission statement has always been to serve the soul of Austin. I'm surprised, it seems that most people don't know where to look for Austin's soul. But it's all around.
Issues that relate directly to our town's soul are addressed in the September 26th bond election. A variety of important political and cultural issues are finally being handed over to voters to make far-reaching decisions. Public cultural institutions need renovation and expansion from time to time; this includes the Carver Museum and the Elizabet Ney Museum. And perhaps, after a 10 year delay, it really is time for our Capital City to build a Mexican American Cultural Center. Aside from the arts, there are also other important environmental issues to consider, such as development in East Austin. Concerned citizens groups have spoken-up and supporters, of such issues as funding for destination parks and urban farming, are trying to jump political hurdles in their quest for amenities that enhance preservation of city parks all over town.
Here at Austin Downtown Arts we are becoming more focused, departmentalizing the magazine,working to hone in on the talents of all of our writers, while at the same time redefining our energies, and requestioning the who, what, where and how our magazine serves the community.
For instance, I recently took a South First Street Arts District tour and, although there are a lot of popular projects and events starting up this fall, I reaffirmed that there is a lot in South Austin that isn't necessarily "popular," but really connects to what I mean when I talk about "the soul of Austin." Raul Salinas at Resistencia Bookstore is well known in certain circles for reaching out and organizing. His project history is vast, and includes projects that are vital to the overall health of multiculturalism -- not just in this community, but in this country. He spent this summer working with a group of troubled girls on a writing project geared to giving children an opportunity to express their opinions, their problems, and pride in their heritage.
Resistencia Bookstore, Raul's home base, carries a good selection of independently published plays, poetry, short fiction and culture criticism by authors who have achieved tremendous respect and recognition from people throughout the country. Salinas' Red Salmon Press is also housed here.
I've heard about Vince Hannemann's work for a long time. And, although I couldn't find his house nor his "Backyard Castle of Junk," I understand his home assemblage art is well worth the finding. Please call (512) 442-6312 for directions.
Behind Alternate Currents Art Space at 2209 South First is the Scrap Yard Studio. There you'll find an interesting found objects sculpture garden, great examples of moveable ideas at work. While at the complex, ask Alternate Currents' Susan Maynard to see her small studio space built from multi-colored glass bottles set in concrete. It's a structure worth its weight in gold.
In fact, a trip to check out the other happenings in and around the South First Arts District will hip you to some of South Austin's cultural treasures.
Have a good September, enjoy reading our little magazine, and support local art and artists whenever you can. That's the soul of Austin!
Words for the People, By the People by Paul Klemperer
Those of you who followed the recent Poetry Slam Nationals held here in our noble little city may still be, as I am, a bit groggy from ingesting so much spoken word. It was both a grand and simple thing, reaffirming that poetry doesn't have to be elitist and stuffy, but at the same time it can move us beyond the ordinary, opening small windows on transcendent visions. There was wonderful stuff and lame stuff, light stuff, soul-wrenching stuff. A lot of stuff.
The lasting impression for me was of the democratic character of the event, and of the general effect when you create space for any and all people to put their thoughts and experience into words. I am not speaking so much about the democratic structure of the slams, the internal politics which are continuously being hammered out. That structure mimics the issues and imperatives of progressive political change in this country, and is thus not unique. Confronting the contemporary issues of inclusion, providing space for all the many types of community which have asserted themselves (e.g. Third World, Feminist, Gay, etcetera); these are part of a necessary if difficult process of sorting out the social contradictions we have inherited.
Closer to the point is the issue of what I call multiple aesthetics. Inasmuch as a community is defined by shared experience, this experience contributes to a particular aesthetic perspective. Thus the coming together of poets from multiple communities resulted in the (often messy) coming together of different aesthetics.
But this is still not the main point. What struck me most was the power of each voice. Every day we are inundated with words, with voices trained by various interests to preach, sell, placate and sway us. Words are the medium by which we are organized (often unconsciously) to be productive, obedient cogs in the machine. Of course that's much better than a poke in the eye, which is readily available to back up those words.
In our highly rationalized, commodified, over-determined social world, it is rare to hear an individual voice, a voice that isn't vested in some power group, or constructed by committee. This is what I heard throughout the slam nationals -- individual voices. Certainly they reflected the communities to which they consciously or unconsciously belonged. There were middle-class white male voices, young angry lesbian voices, African American activist voices, and so on. But what gave these voices power was not a social or emotional agenda. Rather it was the desire to crystallize and transcend experiences in the act of fusing words into a poetic unity, which might hang in the air like a small gem, or melt away like a chunk of ice under the lamp of attention.
The poetic voice asserts the primacy of the individual's perspective. For a brief moment a social space is created where it is okay to be subjective, eccentric, irrational, to be a dreamer, if these things give impetus to your voice. For a diverse congregation of communities to come together with the expressed goal of creating and honoring that social space is an important thing. It creates more room for further creative expression, both in the mind and in the world.